Monthly Report: July 2014 Albums

1. Marsha Ambrosius - Friends & Lovers
When Ambrosius dropped an EP back in March, all I wanted was an album-length expansion of its moody quiet storm vibe, and I'm glad it's finally here. None of the singles that ended up being left off the album, or even any of the ones that made the album, have hit remotely as big as "Far Away," but this is more cohesive and more enjoyable overall than her first album. The first 4 tracks practically bleed together into one long suite. Ambrosius has really become a fearless master of her upper register, doing all these sensual trembly runs that bring to mind Teena Marie or Minnie Riperton (although the "Lovin' You" interpolation on the album is maybe too on the nose). Other than the bum Dr. Dre track, the production from Da Internz and Eric Hudson and Pop & Oak is pretty consistently excellent, all these kind of trendy bleary slow jams with occasional more traditionally soulful cuts like "Shoes" and the Charlie Wilson duet. And I like how it doesn't beat you over the head with heartbreak songs and just just goes for maximum impact with the 1-2 of "Love" and "Run" towards the end. Really solid major label R&B album in a year when relatively few have even been released. Also, it amuses me how much the cover art to this resembles the cover art for my top July single. I put all the albums here that are on Spotify in my running playlist of 2014 albums I've listened to.

2. "Weird Al" Yankovic - Mandatory Fun
After revisiting his whole back catalog for a deep album cuts playlist, it was great to see "Weird Al" come back with his first #1 album and just take over the internet with the daily video series. But more than that, it was kinda shocking just how good this album turned out to be, easily his best since Poodle Hat, maybe even Off The Deep End. Even the hit parodies that don't seem to have especially strong premises ("Royals" as "Foil," "Fancy" as "Handy") end up being pretty great by virtue of the level of detail in the lyric writing. And between "Word Crimes," "Mission Statement" and "First World Problems," it feels like Yankovic has never been more on the mark as a cultural critic, finding comedy in the way people think and talk right now without leaning on timely references like the songs about eBay or TMZ on recent albums. It might seem silly to say something like that about a "Weird Al" Yankovic album, but he's always managed to somehow transcend what seems like a very silly and unambitious line of work. Also, great polka medley this time out.

3. Bleachers - Strange Desire
Obviously I'm a big fan of "I Wanna Get Better" and have been looking forward to this album. With any act that has a really strong hit debut single, you kinda listen to that album just to see if it was a fluke or if they have ten more songs just as good -- this is somewhere in between. Nothing quite as good as the single and a couple songs feel kind of slight or ill-considered, but it all hits that particular sonic and emotional territory really well and I could see it really growing on me. Very heart-on-sleeve neo new wave kinda thing with some cool of-the-moment production choices. Kinda says it all that he has both Yoko Ono and Grimes guest on the album.

4. OOIOO - Gamel
I haven't listened to a ton of OOIOO, just a couple of the several previous albums, but it's always seemed pretty cool to me that Yoshimi has created her own project outside the Boredoms that has become pretty long-running and respected in its own right. The kinda shapeless improv-driven format of their records makes them hit and miss for me, and my interest waxes and wanes over the course of an hourlong album, but overall this is pretty cool sounding, there's always things to hear in the Boredoms universe that you're not really going to hear anywhere else. I especially like when the alien funk of "Kecupat Aneh" kicks in.

5. James Nasty - Calvert St. EP
I interviewed James Nasty 5 years ago, when he was just starting to make a name for himself around town, and it's been cool to see him emerge as one of the best younger Baltimore club producers out these days. The lead track from this, "Do It," has Pork Chop doing his first club feature since K.W. Griff's "Bring In The Katz" blew up, but the whole thing is really dope. Check it out on Soundcloud.

6. Mighty Mark - #Mighty EP
Mighty Mark (formerly Murder Mark, and the name change was highly appreciated) has been running Baltimore club for a while now, although I still haven't interviewed dude, crazily enough. This one has a lot of vocals where I might've preferred more of a focus on beats, but it's pretty dope. Also on Soundcloud.

7. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Hypnotic Eye
Another artist I recently enjoyed doing a deep cuts playlist of, Tom Petty's later albums have been light on big undeniable hooks, but the Heartbreakers still sound great. There are a few restrained, groove-driven tracks on here that I ended up enjoying more than the rockers, great keyboard work Benmont Tench is really the MVP of this album. His solo album earlier this year was good, too.

8. Jesse McCartney - In Technicolor
McCartney was one of the post-Timberlake pre-Bieber teen idols who never quite hit it big but I always thought he had a little something with some of those songs like "She's No You" and "Leavin'." This is the self-released album where he's given up on major label stardom, and there's no big name producers, but it's got this nice pop soul polish that hits more of a Michael McDonald/Hall & Oates zone than his contemporaries. Shame about "Goodie Bag," the song where he compares a girl to a sack of promotional swag in a green room, though.

9. Jeremih & Shlohmo - No More EP
Jeremih has had a very odd career that I think demonstrates some of the different narrative strands being woven through R&B right now. He released two very good, very polished major label albums that each contained a gigantic mainstream hit, and he guested on a few rap singles and generally was on a Trey Songz-ish career path. Then in the last 3 years or so, the albums stopped coming and he dropped a mixtape that was very slightly more edgy and Tumblr-y than his other work and suddenly people who never gave his albums the time of day were all over it, and those folks got very excited about him collaborating with Shlohmo, who I'd never heard of. I like this EP more than I expected to, Jeremih's voice is as great and unique as ever, but the production is still a little Weeknd-ish for my tastes. I'm not as concerned about Jeremih abandoning his initial career path anymore, though, since he has a DJ Mustard-produced track all over the radio and might conceivably release another major label album sometime in the near future. You can stream the EP here.

10. Common - Nobody's Smiling
I never totally count out Common, a couple times he's dropped albums so bad that it seemed like he'd never make decent music again and then the next one is dope. In fact, I thought The Dreamer/The Believer was pretty great, and it boded well that he stuck with No I.D. for this album and seemed to be sticking his neck out to make some kind of statement about what's going on in Chicago. It's really not remotely as good as the last album, though. There's a spark here and there, but it's just not No I.D.'s best work, and for every time Com says something interesting or insightful, he drops a few howlers like "I'm hearin' fuckin' voices, like when porn play" or "You in Iraq where it's war like Saudi/ youngins carry the iron, man, like Robert Downey."

Worst Album of the Month: Robin Thicke - Paula
Last year, I was Thicke apologist #1, writing a glowing review of Blurred Lines and a detailed overview of his previous albums. This is where I tap out, though. Paula Patton was his willing muse for 6 mostly good and great albums, appearing on the cover of one of them, and in a couple videos, while he wrote literally dozens of songs about her. Now she's gone, and he's still writing about her, and that can be poignant when done right, but here it's just stomach-turning. I don't know why he rushed to throw together 14 songs, making for a very long and drab, underproduced album when he could've maybe focused on 9 or 10 songs. But it's hard to say if even effort could've redeemed such a wrongheaded album.
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